NASA’s small Martian helicopter never ceases to impress, and NASA intends to reuse the concept to repatriate samples from Perseverance.
A few years ago, the idea of sending a helicopter to Mars might have seemed absurd. But the situation has changed following the exploits of little Ingenuity; the Perseverance rover’s favorite accomplice has continued to work wonders since arriving on the Red Planet. So much so that NASA now plans to build him two twin brothers!
Originally, this little machine was just a proof of concept. He was to demonstrate the feasibility of Martian drones by performing a handful of flights to the neighboring planet. But against all odds, while it was designed to perform a maximum of five landings and take-offs, this little marvel has made no less than… 29 trips since its arrival!
Performances as exceptional as they were surprising for NASA, which decided to jump at the chance; Ingenuity has evolved into personal scout serving the Perseverance rover. It notably allowed the latter to fight his way through the vicious trappings of the Martian terrain; if the rover was able to reach the main objective of its mission without a hitch, it is partly thanks to the information brought back by its faithful propeller partner.
Drones will help collect samples
The rover is currently combing through the Jezero crater delta (see our article). NASA hopes to find traces of past life there. And the more this mission progresses, the more the questions around the return of samples begin to become concrete.
And NASA was so blown away by Ingenuity that they drastically changed their plans yet again; it now intends to offer the leading roles to new helicopters. “There are significant and beneficial program changes”, explains Thomas Zurbruchen, who oversees scientific research at NASA. “They can be directly attributed to the recent successes of Perseverance and the incredible performance of our helicopter,” he says, visibly under the spell of Ingenuity.
NASA plans to recover these samples during a mission called Mars Sample Return. It should leave by 2026. The idea is to send a new device, the Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL), which will follow in the footsteps of its predecessor to recover the samples it is currently collecting.
Originally, the latter was to carry a second vehicle, Sample Fetch Rover (SFR), which was to take care of the collection. But everything changed following the exploits of the small drone. Since the latter has shattered all the wildest hopes of NASA, the agency is now confident enough to offer them a great responsibility.
She purely and simply decided to do without the SFR entirely. The new plan is to have the samples repatriated by Perseverance itself; and to achieve this, he can count on a couple of helicopters directly based on Ingenuity. They will come in very handy if the rover gets into a bind. In the event of a glitch, they will inherit the heavy task of recovering these samples of inestimable scientific value.
A gigantic engineering challenge
Once secured, the samples will then be loaded onto the Mars Ascent Vehicle. This is another machine that will serve as a miniature launch base. Indeed, it embeds a tiny rocket that will serve as an exit door.
This launcher will make an appointment with the last player in this major programme: the Earth Return Orbiter, a satellite currently being built by ESA. After a final transfer, it is this machine that will return to the Blue Planet to repatriate the most expensive dust in the world.
It’s a hugely complex program, and each step presents colossal engineering challenges. Enough to make engineers sweat profusely, knowing that no rocket has ever taken off from another planet; they will therefore grope their way while they will have absolutely no room for error.
At least, if this new version of the program is validated during the next meeting of the committee next September, NASA will be able to count on familiar objects with the offspring of Ingenuity. Enough to further cement its already guaranteed place in the pantheon of space exploration!